“A Gest of Robyn Hode”


456 stanzas about Robin Hood, his men, his travels, his robberies, his courtesy, his victims, his relations with the king, his piety, his betrayal and death, etc. Much of the ballad deals with Little John, the Sheriff, and their relations with Robin

Long description

A narrative in eight fits, set after Robin has become an outlaw.
In fit one, Robin sends out his men to seek a guest for dinner. They find a knight, who, however, has gone deeply in debt to ransom his son.
In the second fit, the knight (who has been given a gift by Robin) appeals to his lenders to have pity on him. They demand payment instead, and hope to have his lands. The knight pays his debts using Robin's money.
In the third fit, Little John takes part in an archery contest, wins, is invited to the Sheriff's house, has a fight with the Sheriff's cook, and induces the cook to join Robin's band.
In the fourth fit, Robin again seeks a dinner guest; they find a steward of those to whom the knight owed money. They take his purse; it amounts to 800 pounds (twice what they lent the knight).
In the fifth fit, Robin and his men join an archery contest, but are discovered and must take shelter in a knight's castle (perhaps their old friend, now called Sir Richard at the Lea)
In the sixth fit, the sheriff goes to London to appeal to the King; Robin and his men escape. The Sheriff captures the knight instead. Robin rescues him and kills the sheriff.
In the seventh fit, the King comes to deal with Robin Hood. He disguises himself and meets Robin's band. He pardons them and takes him into his service.
In the eighth fit, Robin grows tired of servitude and returns to the greenwood. Eventually he is killed by the prioress of Kirklees.


It will probably be evident that, in this case, "gest" means "geste" ("song of deeds"), not "guest."

The "Saint Austin" of stanza 390 is presumably Augustine of Canterbury, who converted Britain to Catholicism, not the more famous Augustine of Hippo.

This song is, of course, much longer than any truly traditional ballad on record. For all that Child calls it a popular ballad, a large portion of the Robin Hood corpus is actually minstrel work. This piece is an obvious example.

The "Gest" is considered by J. C. Holt, following Child and others, and others to be one of only five fundamental pieces of the Robin Hood corpus (the others being "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne" [Child 118], "Robin Hood and the Monk" [Child 119], "Robin Hood and the Potter" [Child 121], and "Robin Hood's Death" [Child 120]). (See J. C. Holt, _Robin Hood_, first edition,Thames & Hudson, 1982, pp. 15-34).

To this list, however, E. K. Chambers, _English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages_, pp. 132-134, makes various changes; his list, after a nod to "Robyn and Gandeleyn" [Child 115], consists of Guy of Gisborne, the Monk, and the Potter, plus perhaps the Geste, but not the Death; instead he offers "Robin Hood and Friar Tuck," i.e. "Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar" [Child 123]. Child too concedes the "Curtal Friar" to be "popular," but not necessarily early, and I have to say that the evidence supports this conclusion. It is interesting to note that there was a genuine outlaw named Friar Tuck, though he worked in the fifteenth century, far too late to be an inspiration for the Robin Hood legend. He, like Maid Marion, may have come to be associated with Robin via the May Games; see the notes to "Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.")

Maurice Keen's list (_The Outlaws of Medieval Legend_, Dorset, 1961, 1977, 1987, pp. 116-117) of Robin Hood ballads of "proven early origin" is the "Geste," the "Story of Robin Hood and the Potter," "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne," and "Robin Hood and the Monk"; the "Death" is excluded even though its plot is part of the "Geste" and so clearly ancient.

Keen does note that the three shorter ballads have very different "feel": The "Potter" is humorous, with little real violence but a lot of tricks; the "Monk" and "Sir Guy," especially the latter, are very bloody. (The "Death," if it be granted as ancient, is of course more a tale of treachery than anything else.)

On page 123, Keen in effect appends "Robin and Gandelyn" to his list of old ballads (while adding that it is only the skeleton of a ballad, hardly a full-blown story of Robin Hood; in his telling, it becomes a sort of proto-Robin tale), plus noting the much-mentioned connection of the Robin Hood corpus to "Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesly" [Child 116],

Allowing some doubt about the exact list of early ballads, it is certain that most Robin Hood ballads are considered late imitations or additions to these -- often rather incompetent ones; as Keen notes (pp. 99-100), "Most [of the Robin Hood ballad], at least in the form in which we have them, are compositions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Robin Hood's traditional world already belonged to a half-forgotten past. The cruel forest laws have fellen into desuetude; archery was no longer a national exercise; the abbeys whose monks the outlaws had robbed had been dissolved. Robin Hood's legend belonged, in fact, to a world so far away in time that almost anything could be believed of it, and as a result his story was sometimes changed out of recognition."

Keen adds that "we must remember that we are not dealing with a host of different stories, but with a host of versions of the same story, and that what is significant is the similarity of tone, the forest setting, the animus against the law and its officers, the callous indifference to bloodshed, and not the differences of detail. At the same time we must remember that we are not dealing with a series of individual characters, but with a type-hero, the outlaw, who, though he may appear under more than one alias, remains essentially the same, and what is significant about him is not his name or his individual acts, but his conventional attitudes" (pp. 126-127).

But even if Robin is more a spirit of outlawry than an actual outlaw, there must be a history of how that spirit arose. Trying to trace this is as difficult as sorting out the ballads themselves. We must look both at the age of the sources and at their content.

The "Gest" is not, in terms of the age of the manuscript, the oldest Robin Hood ballad (that honour is regarded as belonging to "Robin Hood and the Monk," dated c. 1450). The "Gest" is, however, early and widespread; a partial text seems to have been printed between 1510 and 1515 in Antwerp, and Wynken de Worde (who worked from 1492 to 1534) printed a complete text, now considered the standard. Three other version, with minimal differences, went through the press at about this same time; all are believed to have been derived from a single relatively recent original.

Keen, p. 101, notes that the "Gest" seems to be a combination of elements from four other ballads (though his names do not correspond to Child's; he titles them "Robin Hood and the Knight," "Robin Hood, Little John and the Sheriff," "Robin Hood and the King," and "Robin Hood's Death"). He also notes that, for all its length, the "Gest" opens with Robin already in the greenwood; the outlaw simply appears there, almost like a wood sprite.

This is typical of the early ballads. Holt, pp. 35-38, observes that much of the popular legend of Robin Hood is absent from these early pieces. Among the missing features: Maid Marian (the link between Robin and Marion/Marian seems to come from French romances, and was cemented by the May Games, where she was queen), Richard the Lion-Hearted (the Gest's king is Edward, though it's not clear which Edward), Robin's birth as Robin of Locksely and/or Earl of Huntingdon (in the early legend, Robin is clearly a yeoman), and the theme of robbing the rich to give to the poor. These and many other features accumulated later.

It should be noted that even the "basic" pieces of the legend date from well after Robin's time, which may explain why the chronology of the Robin Hood corpus is such a mess. Starting with the external evidence (from sources other than the ballads):

The earliest certain reference to Robin Hood is in Langland's _Piers Plowman_. In the "B" text, Passus V, line 396, we read "But I kan [ken] rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl [Earl] of Chestre" (so the text edited by A. v. C. Schmidt for the Everyman edition, but there are no major variants in this line). This was written around 1377, implying that by that date the Robin Hood legend had already entered the ballad tradition.

The earliest Robin Hood ballad manuscript, as noted, is "Robin Hood and the Monk" [Child 119], which occurs in ms. Cambridge Ff. 5.48 of about 1450. Soon after, we find a dramatic fragment of the story of "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne" [Child 118] scribbled on the back of a slip of financial receipts dated 1475/6 C.E. This is not the ballad itself, but it is clearly the same story.

Robin occurs in several chronicles, but at diverse dates. Andrew de Wynton (c. 1415) dates him to 1283-1285 (reign of Edward I), and places him in "Ynglewode and Bernysdale" ("Inglewood and Barnsdale").

Walter Bower (c. 1445) dates Robin to 1266 (reign of Henry III; Holt speculates that this might make him one of the defeated followers of Simon de Montfort).

By the late fifteenth century, Robin Hood was a character in the May games. But, except that he was a bowman associated with Little John, little can be learned of from these early games (even assuming the recorded forms of the games match the traditional).

In 1521, John Major dated Robin to 1193/4 (reign of Richard I). This latter date was followed by John Leland (fl. 1530) and later by Richard Grafton (fl. 1550), who claims to have found records of Robin in the exchequer rolls -- records which, however, cannot now be found. In this connection I note that Keen, p. 129, compares the tale of Robin with the epic of the historical Fulk FitzWarrene. FitzWarrene (FitzWarin in Keen) was one of the rebels against King John, and became the subject of a romance similar in outline to the tale of Robin's foregiveness by the King; Keen implies a possibility that the tale of Robin, which apparently started as a story of one of the Edwards, might have been attracted to the Richard I/John period by the similarity in plots.

In 1632, Martin Parker published "The True Tale of Robin Hood," which lists Robin's death date as December 4, 1198 (late in the reign of Richard I). This, however, contradicts the reports of Robin's gravestone. The papers of Thomas Gale (d. 1702) report that the inscription dated Robin's death to 24 Kalends of December 1247 (this is not a legitimate Roman date, but may mean December 24; in any case the language of the inscription is far too modern for 1247).

Other sources report his grave at Kirklees, with the inscription "Here lie Roberd Hude, William Goldburgh, Thomas." This was copied by Johnston in 1665, but was no longer legible in the time of Gough (1786), although that author printed Johnson's version. Today the grave slab can no longer be found. Gough, however, transmitted a report that the ground under the slab was undisturbed, meaning that the slab was either a trick or had been moved.

(This is, of course, not the only alleged Robin Hood relic. We know of a "Robin Hood's stone," first attested in 1540, "Robin Hood's Well," mentioned in 1622; etc. But all such relics are either lost or more recent inventions.)

By the sixteenth century we find Robin becoming a nobleman. This was the report of Grafton, and was supported by the Gale inscription, paraphrased by Parker in 1598. Dr. William Stukeley, in 1746, combined inaccurate records of the peerage with a good deal of fiction to convert Robin into "Robert fitz Ooth" (=Fitzhugh?), third earl of Huntingdon, giving his death date as 1274 (just after the accession of Edward I).

In 1601 we have a book, _The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon_, by Monday and Chettle. This alludes to Robin's death, but the portion I've seen has little substantial detail.

In 1795, Joseph Ritson published his "Robin Hood." In one sense this is invaluable, as it contains a vast amount of Robin Hood material not accessible elsewhere (note how many of the Child references are to Ritson) -- but it also retails a vast amount of late rubbish, making very little attempt to separate the earlier sources from later additions. It was Ritson, e.g., who is largely responsible for the notion of "robbing the rich to give to the poor."

Turning to the ballads themselves, note that, in stanza 353, 450, etc., of the "Gest," the king of England is named Edward. At first glance this would appear to be Edward I (reigned 1272-1307). Edward was the great-grandson of Henry II, the grand-nephew of Richard I, and the grandson of John, the three kings most associated in recent myth with Robin -- but though a date in the reign of Edward I does not match the common chronology, it is logical; the longbow was in much wider use in Edward's reign than in Henry's or Richard's (in whose times it was not used at all, at least outside Wales).

In 1852, however, Joseph Hunter showed that the only King Edward who made a progress resembling that of the "Geste" was Edward II, who visited Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Nottingham in 1323. This leads to other problems, though: Could a Robin Hood who was active in 1323 have become a legendary figure as early as the time Langland wrote? In addition, Edward II was deposed and murdered in 1327; is it possible that the legend would take no notice of this?

Much has been built on Hunter's speculations (Hunter also found a Robert Hood, whose wife was Matilda, in Wakefield in 1317, and a Robert/Robyn Hood among Edward's domestic servants in 1324). There is, however, absolutely no basis to believe in the authenticity of any of this. Moreover, as Holt points out, Barnsdale (Robin's base in the earliest legends) was known as a haunt of robbers as early as 1306. This does not preclude dating Robin to 1323 -- but it implies there were outlaws on the scene before his arrival.

Holt (pp. 53-61) summarizes attempts to locate the original Robin Hood; as Holt himself admits, none of them are in any way convincing. Although all can be made to fit some part of the legend, they require ignoring other parts.

Keen (pp. 137-138), referring simply to the general notion of the greenwood legend, strenuously argues that it must date from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, because of the many references to livery and its misuse -- a common issue in that time period.

Later legends regarded Robin as a Saxon opposed to the Norman Conquest. This is patently absurd; the longbow did not exist then (Holt and others think that Robin's weapon could have been a short bow. However, Robin's exploits imply a weapon far superior to that used by the royal officialdom. This clearly requires the longbow). Robin's place as a Saxon rebel seems to be a confusion with the tale of Hereward the Wake (itself mostly legend) -- a suspicion strengthened by the parallels between "Robin Hood and the Potter" and a similar tale of Hereward's disguise.

The legend of Robin Hood is also connected with that of "Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesly" [Child 116], first published in 1536. These three were based in Inglewood in Cumbria, not Barnsdale (though, as noted, Wynton places Robin in Inglewood), and William is married (indeed, it is a visit to his wife that motivates the largest part of the ballad) -- but almost all the incidents are paralleled in the "Gest." An attempt to combine the two legends produced the monstrosity that is "Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valor, and Marriage" [Child 149].

If the mention of the longbow requires a post-conquest date for Robin, though, it also gives a latest possible date. Keen, p. 138, dates the decline of the longbow to the Battle of Castillon in 1453. This is accurate, in a way, but it is noteworthy that the longbow first won battles for the English at Halidon Hill (1333) and Crecy (1347), when Edward III was king.

And the longbow had become widespread even earlier. During the reign of Edward I, longbow training was *required* of ordinary folk (see Desmond Seward, _The Hundred Years War_, Atheneum, 1982, p. 53). This makes it simply impossible for Robin and his men to have been active as late as the time of Edward III (even if you ignore the mention in _Piers Plowman_). Robin's men survive because of their exceptional skill with the bow -- but, by the reign of Edward III, their collective skill cannot be exceptional; while one or two might be champion archers, it is sure that other archers could compete with the rank and file of his men.

It is interesting to note (Keen, p. 139) that Edward III did command regular competitions with the bow -- something often seen in the Robin Hood tales. But that again implies that Robin couldn't always win. For the longbow required skill (contrary to what is implied by Keen, p. 138). Longbows required more pull than short bows, but the strongest muscles could not compete with a crossbow in power. To compete with crossbows, then, longbowmen had to aim in an arc far above their targets. This took a great deal of practice, and was the main reason no one other than the English and Welsh took to the longbow.

Another point on dating, hinted at by Keen, is the fact that peasants -- villeins -- were bound to the land (there are actually cases of them being sold; see Doris Mary Stenton, _English Society in the Early Middle Ages (1066-1307)_, Pelican, second edition, 1952, pp. 142-143). This was a situation most typical of the period from Henry III to Edward II. The Black Death changed that by producing a shortage of workers. The nobility of course tried to halt the exodus of the peasants (Wat Tyler's rebellion of 1381 was largely against these restrictions; see B. Wilkinson, _The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216-1485_, Longman, 1969, 1980, pp. 158-164), but more and more peasants were becoming free in the reign of Edward III, and effectively all were free by the early fifteenth century.

Keen, p. 140, thinks that the frequent mentions of Robin as a yeoman implies a late date, but there were always *some* yeomen in England; it seems to mne that his men are villeins, and fled to the greenwood for lack of another choice (a free man could always seek work elsewhere), so this implies an early date. Similarly, Keen, pp. 141-142, argues that the lack of offences against "vert" (the plants of the forest) dates Robin to the time of Edward III or later -- but poaching was always a worse offence than three-cutting, Indeed, tree-cutting was a worse crime in later times, when the great trees were needed for naval vessels.

Adding it all up, I think a date prior to Edward III nearly certain. But how much prior?

It could be argued that the longbow was already common as early as the time of Edward I (reigned 1272-1307), forcing us to a date in the reigns of Henry II (1154-1189), Richard I (1189-1199), John (1199-1216), or Henry III (1216-1272). This is attractive but not absolutely compelling; Edward II (1307-1327) largely turned his back on the use of the bow, which was the major reason he was defeated at Bannockburn in 1314. Thus in many ways the reign of Edward II is a likely date for the shaping of the legends that gave rise to the "Gest" and the other early ballad. But this is far from sure.

Robin's home is also problematic. Although we are accustomed to think of him as haunting Sherwood Forest (and indeed, 17 of the ballads place Robin in Sherwood or Nottingham), early sources usually place him in Barnsdale Forest , which is more than ten leagues to the north, and in Yorkshire. (As of 2004, in fact, this has become an issue in the British parliament, with Nottinghamshire posting signs saying "Robin Hood Country" and Yorkshire wanting them taken down.)

Barnsdale, it should be noted, is outside the "beat" of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Barnsdale and Sherwood are so far apart that an outlaw could not reasonably occupy both. "Guy of Gisborne" suggests still a third locale, in Lancashire (Gisburn is relatively close to the west coast of Britain, in Lancashire; if Guy lived in Robin's locality, Robin might well have lived in Bowland Forest east of the Wyre river. The chances of anyone from Sherwood, or even Barnsdale, showing up in this area are slight; Inglewood is perhaps a bit more likely. This suggests another link to "Adam Bell.")

It is likely that the Sherwood/Nottingham became Robin's home in the later legend because Nottingham is larger and better known; Barnsdale rarely even figures on modern maps.

I have to think the version of the Robin Hood saga most people know today is from Scott's _Ivanhoe_; it really shows little resemblance to the ballads or earlier legends. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1272-1307 - Reign of Edward I
  • 1307-1327 - Reign of Edward II
  • 1327-1377 - Reign of Edward III


  1. Child 117, "A Gest of Robyn Hode" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 117,"Robin Hood" (6 versions, though none has a substantial text and only one shows any words at all; Bronson, with reason, questions their validity); cf. Chappell/Wooldridge I, pp. 273, "Robin Hood (2 tunes, partial text) {Bronson's #2a}
  3. OBB 115, "A Little Geste of Robin Hood and his Meiny" (1 text)
  4. Gummere, pp. 1-67+313-320, "A Gest of Robin Hode" (1 text)
  5. HarvClass-EP1, pp. 128-186, "A Gest of Robyn Hode" (1 text)
  6. Roud #70
  7. BI, C117


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1534 (Wynkyn de Worde's edition of A Little Geste of Robyn Hoode was probably printed c. 1495)
Keywords: Robinhood outlaw
Found in: Britain(England) Ireland